The closing plenary of our 50th anniversary conference was packed with activists who were treated to a bit of organizational history by two Amnesty International veterans, Ellen Dorsey and Paul Hoffman. Ellen told the hundreds of predominantly young activists in the ballroom that she joined Amnesty International as a teenager 30 years ago “because I couldn’t learn about the world in my classes in the way that Amnesty would teach me about the world,” she said. “Amnesty has given back every step of the way and invested in me.”
When Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner took the stage, Dorsey seized the opportunity to ask him: “Will you please tell President Obama to close Guantánamo?” Her question brought a raucous cheer from the audience, and several hundred people rose to their feet. When the audience finally sat down, Posner, the former executive director of Human Rights First, said, “I will and have and will continue to tell anyone I can find in the administration that we have to take our word seriously. The challenge is that we are confronted by the political reality in this country. We hear all the time from people on the other side but don’t hear enough from people telling us to close Guantánamo now.” Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty reminded us that in order for Posner and other like-minded officials within the Obama administration to have influence, they need the backing of grassroots pressure from activists like us.
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There is an antidote to the weariness, cynicism and paralysis perpetuated by the heartless churn of our 24-hour news cycle: Just listen to the voices of those who walk the razor’s edge each day as they fight to change the world. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed Amnesty activists by phone at the end of Day 2 of our 50th anniversary conference, graciously acknowledging the role of grassroots activism in her release after 15 years of detention by the military junta and encouraging us not to forget the 2,000-plus political prisoners who remain locked up in Burma.
Her brief address was followed by a riveting speech by Jenni Williams, co-founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a group of women who have been jailed, tortured and persecuted for their non-violent demonstrations to demand social justice. Williams recalled one August night when police abducted seven WOZA members. “The phone calls started at 3 a.m. We heard our members had been arrested in suburbs, so we called Amnesty International. By 12 noon, all seven members were delivered back to their homes by the same police officers who had abducted them,” said Williams.
Earlier in the day, I spotted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof listening to similarly harrowing tales at the well-attended panel discussion, “Muzzling the Watchdogs,” featuring Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi. All three had been arrested, imprisoned and persecuted for their work to expose injustice, and each was the subject of Amnesty International urgent actions and/or international letter campaigns demanding their freedom.
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Tears are an occupational hazard of working a large human rights conference, perhaps never more so than Amnesty International USA’s 50th anniversary annual general meeting. More than 1,000 activists from around the United States have gathered in San Francisco this week for three days of intensive organizing, as well as the opportunity to hear from several of the courageous human rights defenders whom we work to protect and support.
I spent the most of today interviewing people who reminded me in stark terms how grassroots activism saves lives. Thanks to the gracious efforts of documentary director Joe Gantz (of HBO’s The Defenders), who had volunteered to cover the conference with his incredible crew, we began the day by recording the testimonies of Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, co-founders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). They, along with the other founding members of WOZA, first took to the streets in 2003 to demand social justice—and as a result they have endured years of arbitrary detentions, police beatings, death threats, harassment and harsh conditions in jail.
During a recent arrest, they said, fellow WOZA members jumped into the police van in solidarity. Soon the van was packed with women. “The police decided not to take us to the main jail, since the last time they took us there,” said Jenni, “the jail had received so many faxes, emails and phone calls from Amnesty activists.” They took the women to another jail outside of town but were again turned away by jailers who did not want the international attention. By the end of the day, they had been turned away from four jails because authorities did not want to be in Amnesty International’s spotlight.
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Our 50th anniversary Annual General Meeting kicks off tonight in San Francisco! Over 1,400 Amnesty International activists from across the country (and across the sea!) have already registered, making this the biggest annual meeting we’ve had yet.
At tonight’s opening ceremony we’ll be honoring one of Amnesty USA’s founding members, the fabulous Joan Baez for a lifetime of human rights activism and solidarity.
We’ll also be celebrating our 50th anniversary – that’s 50 years of hard work by you, our members and activists, in shining a light on human rights — in addition to a packed agenda with panels to help us strategize for our continued fight for human rights everywhere.
We look forward to seeing you there! If you can’t make it, check in on this blog where we’ll be posting updates throughout the event. You can also follow the AGM Twitter feed @AmnestyAGM for updates from the conference or hashtag #agm11 to join the conversation.